brown mountain
“Night Sky” engraving by Camille Flammarion, 1888, Paris. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.

The Brown Mountain Lights in North Carolina have fascinated visitors for over a century. It’s even been the inspiration for an episode of the X-Files, entitled Field Trip. While it is alleged to be an ancient phenomenon, the lights did not draw any attention until after the turn of the Twentieth Century, despite a variety of farms and homes nearby. Documentation does not support the extensive history it’s often given.

Brown Mountain is not without history beyond the lights. In 1893, a deadly fight occurred on Brown Mountain between two men, named George and Nunn. George murdered Nunn by stabbing him multiple times. There is also a record of Deputy Sheriff Wyatt Simmons attempting suicide via laudanum at Brown Mountain in 1897.

J. A. Hill, who lived at Brown Mountain, gained a reputation as an impressive inventor. In 1902, he began engineering a flying machine. He perfected the design, but eventually lost his financing. The tragedy in France, where an airship circling the Eiffel Tower plunged to destruction, cost Hill his backing. His financiers refused to be a part of such a dangerous venture.

Hill didn’t stop there, he went on to invent many more things. Some of his gadgets included a pocket-sized cigarette-rolling machine and he’s believed to be the originator of the “rocker-recliner” chair.


Then it Gets Strange

Professor R. T. Claywell was an integral part of the early Brown Mountain light fandom. He’s the one who involved Washington while working on a friend’s political campaign there. Claywell’s earliest reports didn’t involve lights at all. In 1890, he was the spokesperson for the communities at Brown Mountain. The area experienced some kind of earthquake in August, around nine at night. Claywell wasn’t certain as to what happened. He thought someone had set off dynamite. No cause or reason was established for the event.

Around 1912, a man named Carlyle Crouch also made a discovery on Brown Mountain. He worked at a lumber camp and wandered away after work. He found a huge stone circle around four or five miles from the camp, the rocks had sunk deep into the ground. One large tree, felled at the time, had grown atop one part of the circle. No further investigation was conducted.

A resident of Hickory, North Carolina, named Alice B. Council, also made a statement concerning the lights in 1922. She said many people recalled the days before automobiles and electricity and the lights were there at that time. Council further stated a German scientist explored the strange activity 75 years earlier and she had a copy of his article.

The area was relatively quite until 1914. This was the beginning of the Brown Mountain lights, as we know them. Articles frequently ran throughout local North Carolina areas about the new phenomenon. Prof. Claywell states it began around four months earlier, but has appeared nearly every night since. He first witnessed the lights with a group.

They sat outside the Cold Springs hotel that May evening. It was 10:05. A hazy light in the distance caught there eye. It turned out to be two hazy lights. A third ball appeared as a round, yellow light. It grew more intense and resembled a fireball. All the lights were dancing and one of them darted behind a low-hanging cloud before it disappeared.

A government official from the United States Geological Survey (USGS) came to the region to investigate the lights, but locals grew aggravated with him. They claimed he drove a few miles out of town, didn’t see any lights, and dismissed the whole thing as a train’s headlights.

Visitors flocked to the region for years afterward and the lights never failed to entertain. The people finally got a decent response from the USGS around 1921. The government, however, still held fast to the headlight theory. This was debunked due to the flood of 1916. The entire area was washed out, and there was no electricity or auto and train traffic. The lights still appeared. The locals did not agree with the government, and no logical explanation has ever been universally accepted.

There have been as many theories as there have investigators. The lights have been blamed on the elements, will-o’-the-wisp, foxfire, St. Elmo’s fire, the Andes Lights, radium, mirages, chemical reactions, atmospheric phenomenon, ghosts, spirits, aliens, and more. The orbs became the reflection of electricity, of streetlights, of train lights, of car lights and today, they remain unexplained. National Geographic became involved and claimed the lights were electrical phenomena combined with atmospheric conditions.


Addressing Rumors

The rumored history is another realm, altogether. These are the stories and legends that can’t be substantiated.

Legend says the history of the lights can be traced, through the Cherokee and Catawba, as far back as 1200 A.D.

Explanations have been posed for as long as the lights have been watched. They’ve been called the spirits of great warriors or a native maiden searching for her beloved.

As time progressed, so did the rationalizations. They were “enemy” signals during the Civil War. They were the signals of moonshiners warning one another against the “revenuers.” It was the ghost of a wife who had returned from the dead to haunt her murderous husband. It’s also been called a spirit that guards a vast treasure and attacks anyone who attempts to find it. One legend said the ghost of a kind-hearted moonshiner, killed during a raid, wanted to help others evade the authorities so his spirit “danced” along the path they should take.



It is up to the observer to speculate and draw their own opinion on what these mysterious lights are. People still dismiss the activity as flashlights, or laser lights, or some other modern apparatus. Perhaps it is most appropriate to just say the lights remain proof that our world is filled with more mystery and wonder than we can fathom.

This video shows the reactions of National Geographic cameramen as they film the spectacle.



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